Over the past year, the Insider has pointed out numerous problems and concerns with not only the construction of the Marshall Square retirement community and the management of the Evans facility, but also Columbia County’s response to the tragic fire of June 2, 2015.
At times, it was difficult to even relay the inadequacies of the Columbia County Fire Rescue department, the fire marshal’s office and the management of Marshall Square without grimacing or laughing out loud.
But the disastrous actions surrounding the Marshall Square fire aren’t funny.
The mismanagement of the fire wasn’t part of some pathetic episode of The Three Stooges.
That devastating fire occurred right here in Evans, Ga. and resulted in the displacement of more than 80 senior residents and the tragic death of 91-year-old resident Dorothy Carpenter.
That’s no laughing matter.
And nothing illustrates that fact more than wrongful death lawsuit that was recently filed by Barbara Ellington, the daughter of Dorothy Carpenter.
In the lawsuit, Ellington’s attorney, Harry Revell, outlines the sequence of events that led to the terrible death of Carpenter in her third-floor apartment located a few doors down from the billiard room, where the fire originated.
“On the night of the fire, Defendant (Zack) Freehof was the night concierge in charge of the complex. At 3:03 a.m. the alarm went off at the facility indicating there was smoke in the billiard room on the 3rd floor of the complex,” Revell writes. “Despite knowing there was smoke and fire on the third floor, Defendants Freehof and (Property Manager) Chris Bryde negligently failed to notify the fire department for 17 minutes until 3:20 a.m. During this period of delayed notification to the fire department, Defendants Freehof and/or Bryde inexplicably silenced the fire alarm five times.”
All the while, both Bryde and Freehof instructed residents to “shelter in place” or stay in their apartments as they “downplayed and minimized the danger of the fire that was rapidly spreading throughout the Marshall Square complex,” the lawsuit states.
Next, enters the fire department and the mistakes continue to occur one after another.
“After receiving delayed notification of the fire at 3:20 a.m., Columbia County Fire Rescue (CCFR) personnel were dispatched at 3:22 a.m.,” the lawsuit states. “The first responders arrived on site at 3:30 a.m. By 3:32 a.m. there were 12 CCFR firefighters on the scene at the Marshall Square complex.”
The firefighters are supposedly trained to follow the established policies and procedures of the department in order to “prevent firefighters from freelancing in their firefighting and fire rescue activities in a scene of uncontrolled chaos,” the lawsuit states.
“First and foremost among the established policies is to conduct a ‘primary search,’ which is to be organized by the incident commander,” Revell writes. “This primary search procedure is designed to locate and evacuate victims who may need assistance in their apartments.”
The policy is obviously designed to rescue those who are in immediate danger first, Revell states.
“Under the established policy, procedure and protocol at CCFR, the primary search is to be conducted beginning with the apartments located closest to the fire which, in this instance, was in the third floor billiard room located in the core of the Marshall Square facility,” the lawsuit states. “Under the established policy, procedure and protocol at CCFR the incident commander must ask for and receive an ‘all clear’ report from the primary search team.”
That procedure did not occur during the Marshall Square fire, the lawsuit clearly states.
“(Capt. Gary) Griffith was one of the first CCFR firefighters to arrive at the Marshall Square fire,” the lawsuit states. “He arrived at 3:32 a.m. and assumed the position of incident commander. Later, (Battalion Chief Jimmie) Paschal relieved Griffith and took over as the incident commander. Both Griffith and Paschal were negligent by not organizing and carrying out a primary search as mandated by established policies, procedures and guidelines.”
Not only did the firefighters not search Carpenter’s room on the third floor, they were standing in its close vicinity on several occasions for almost 30 minutes prior to the fire seriously engulfing that floor, the lawsuits states.
“CCFR personnel, including some or all of the CCFR defendants, were within a few feet of the door to Dorothy Carpenter’s apartment for more than 25 minutes before it became too dangerous to continue searching for victims,” Revell writes. “During that 25 minute period, (Special Operations Chief Danny) Kuhlmann directed (Lt. Jamie) Champion to conduct a primary search of the third floor core in accordance with the established policy, procedure, and protocol.”
Champion failed to properly search the floor.
“Despite having ample time and ease of access, Defendant Champion negligently failed to perform his assigned duty to find and rescue Dorothy Carpenter,” the lawsuit states.
During their depositions conducted by attorneys representing both Marshall Square and its former residents, members of the Columbia County Fire Rescue admitted they could have saved Carpenter’s life if proper procedures had been followed.
“One or more of the CCFR defendants have admitted under oath that Dorothy Carpenter would have been found and rescued if the CCFR Defendants had performed their primary search duties set forth in the CCFR policies, procedures and protocols,” the lawsuit states.
That is heartbreaking news for all of Carpenter’s friends and family members.
“The CCFR defendants did not recognize and appreciate the extent and severity of the fire before 3:54 a.m. when fire was first discovered in the attic,” the lawsuit states. “Before that time, Defendant Kuhlmann negligently assumed the fire was not serious and was under control. Defying both common sense and the established CCFR policies, procedures and protocols, Defendants Kuhlmann and Bryde actually turned off the Marshall Square sprinkler system at approximately 3:44 a.m., long before the fire was under control.”
So, the lawsuit is claiming that both the fire department and the property manager turned off the sprinkler system during the fire at Marshall Square.
For a firefighter to shutoff a sprinkler system during a fire inside a retirement community is unfathomable. But then to not properly search the rooms nearest to the fire is incomprehensible.
But the criticism of the fire department doesn’t stop there.
The lawsuit also points out that the fire department failed to “call a second alarm by 3:35 when it was readily apparent that additional firefighting resources were needed.”
It also failed to “call for more resources before 4:43 a.m. when it was apparent that even more firefighting resources were needed.”
All of these actions led to the tragic death of Carpenter in her apartment, the lawsuit states.
“Most likely, Dorothy Carpenter never heard the fire alarm sound since it was repeatedly silenced by defendants Freehof and Bryde,” Revell writes. “Even if she heard the alarm, she most likely was abiding by the Marshall Square defendants’ shelter in place policy that required her to remain in her apartment and not evacuate the building.”
If she did wake up, it is likely Carpenter was left waiting in her room as the fire began to build up around her apartment, the lawsuit states.
“Mostly likely, Dorothy Carpenter was also waiting for the intercom announcement that had been promised in the Marshall Square defendants’ shelter in place policy,” Revell writes. “However, unbeknownst to Dorothy Carpenter, the intercom system at the Marshall Square facility was not even capable of carrying voice announcements, only music.”
So, according to the lawsuit, the management at Marshall Square even lied to its residents about the intercom system.
“As a result, Dorothy Carpenter tragically remained in her apartment as instructed and waited to be rescued by someone,” the lawsuit states. “No one ever came to rescue Dorothy Carpenter and evacuate her from the unspeakable horror she was left to endure for several hours as her apartment was completely engulfed by fire all around her.”
That image of a 91-year-old woman trapped in her apartment as her room rapidly becomes engulfed in flames should keep both the Columbia County fire personnel and management of Marshall Square awake at night.
“Dorothy Carpenter suffered unimaginable terror of impending injury, burning and death as the fire raged around her,” the lawsuit states. “Whatever cries and pleas for help she uttered went unheeded amidst the freelancing chaos caused by the negligence of the defendants, individually and collectively.”
“Freelancing chaos” is a perfect description of that terrible morning.
It is time for Columbia County elected officials to face the music and no longer fear potential litigation.
The lawsuit against the county is here and the evidence against the fire department and the fire marshal’s office is staggering.
There clearly needs to be some serious changes in Columbia County, starting at the top of the fire department all the way down through the ranks.
This is literally a life-and-death situation.
Just ask the family of Dorothy Carpenter.